Jon Ostendorff, Asheville Citizen-Times
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Gary Mitchell would love nothing more than to be just another boring, married man in America.
He and David Eck tied the knot last year in Seattle, where same sex marriage is legal, after being together for 21 years.
“We have friends who live in Zurich who grew up in America,” he said. “And we said, you know, ‘How do the Swiss look at gay marriage and gay people?’ And she goes, ‘Oh, that’s boring. We don’t talk about it.’ That’s what I want. I want to be boring like everybody else. Let’s just not talk about it.”
But there’s been a lot of talk lately about gay marriage.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, giving gay couples more rights, including the ability for the first time to file federal taxes jointly. It could mean a savings of thousands of dollars for some.
When the court made its decision, Mitchell and Eck thought it was a step forward. But back home in North Carolina, they are still not just another boring married couple.
The state, since it does not recognize their marriage, also doesn’t allow them to file state income taxes jointly. The state Department of Revenue made this rule official in October.
North Carolina’s income tax returns are based on each taxpayer’s federal filing. People file with the Internal Revenue Service first to get information to use on their state returns.
The state wants same-sex couples to file separately using “pro forma” federal returns. That means the couples have to fill out three federal tax returns – once as a couple, plus as separate individuals. In the view of Mitchell and Eck, that means lying to the state, reporting they’re single when they’re not.
Mitchell is assistant pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ downtown. Eck is pastor at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fairview.
Lying is not among the lessons they teach their congregations.
“We are going to file honestly as a married couple even though the state doesn’t recognize our marriage,” Mitchell said.
“They are going to have to basically tell us what to do because I am not going to lie on my taxes,” Eck said. “I’m married in the United States so if they want me to lie they are going to have to tell me, by paper, they want me to be dishonest on my tax form.”
They are not alone in facing this decision.
There were 3,224 married same-sex couples in North Carolina in 2010, according to Census data analyzed by the Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law. There are more than 15,000 unmarried same-sex couples in the state.
North Carolina is one of 18 states where people are required to use their federal filing status for state income tax returns, said Brian Moulton, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington.
Moulton said the patchwork of state tax regulations for same-sex married couples means more time and expense for them compared with their different-sex married counterparts.
“The solution is marriage equality in all 50 states,” he said. “Certainly that would resolve these questions for couples and allow them to be treated equally.”
That would not be popular in North Carolina, where voters overwhelming passed an amendment to the state Constitution banning gay marriage.
Another solution is to change the state tax law so that it is not connected to the federal system, which is the case in some other states, Moulton said.
Some states have no income tax at all, making the issue irrelevant.
The Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, which supports same-sex marriage rights, says the state’s decision to require different tax forms from legally married gay couples is discrimination.
“This differential treatment by the state of North Carolina creates a burden of unfair taxation, often totaling thousands of dollars, and is a crystal clear example of what discrimination looks like in practice,” said executive director Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. “We believe it is unconstitutional and untenable for North Carolina to continue to deny recognition of legal marriages, marriages that are recognized by the federal government and 19 other states.”
It is unclear what might happen to couples like Mitchell and Eck, who plan to file jointly despite the state’s regulations.
A spokesman for the state Department of Revenue said the agency works with all taxpayers to get them accurate information. The department would not comment on a specific situation that hasn’t happened yet.
The couple has lived in Asheville since the 1990s. Mitchell is a Statesville native and former Asheville City Schools teacher.
Eck is from Pennsylvania and was called to the area to lead his church.
They have a home off Merrimon Avenue, a Terrier-mix named Shiloh, two foster children and a granddaughter.
They feel good about being legally married. It was more emotional than Eck thought it would be.
“It was really emotional for me because as a pastor I have signed many marriage certificates for those straight couples that have been part of the congregation and in the community,” he said. “And to finally have somebody sign mine was a really powerful moment for me.”
The end of the Defense of Marriage Act means more than just income tax equality. It also gives same-sex couples the right to inherit property without huge tax penalties.
Eck and Mitchell will use Turbo Tax, an electronic program, to file their taxes. The program, at least in years past, doesn’t include a field for same-sex married. It only has input for married or single.
“It could be a mess,” Eck said. “We don’t know. We will find out. Or it could be really easy.”